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Becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)

by Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT


As you continue on in your career as a physical therapist, you way you practice will shift. Over time, you will rely less on modalities and manual therapy, and more on exercise. This change will occur partially, because of your desire to make patients more independent and less reliant on you. However, as this shift begins taking place, you might find that you don't know as much about exercise as you should. 

For those who may not have majored in exercise science or kinesiology as an undergraduate, you may be looking for ways to increase your exercise knowledge basis. This could lead to your consideration in becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.

What is the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialty?

The CSCS is a certification conferred by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which describes itself as “a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to advancing the strength and conditioning profession around the world.” They describe CSCS members as “professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance.”

How should you prepare for the CSCS exam?

As you begin to prepare for the CSCS exam, there is a lot to take into consideration. This link includes everything you need to know, including study materials, internships and apprenticeships, and guidelines.

As a guideline, the CSCS exam will test your knowledge and skills in two areas of professional practice: Scientific Foundations and Practical/Applied knowledge.

Like any test, you need to give yourself enough time to prepare. Since you are most likely already working or have other responsibilities you are tending to, give yourself anywhere between 2-4 months to prepare. Read over course material, memorize as much as you can, and take note of your areas of weakness. This will strengthen your knowledge overall and ensure you are confident before taking your CSCS exam. 

In addition to studying relentlessly, there is a practice test offered by the NSCA that is broken down by section. While it looks different than the actual exam, it will go into the details and logistics of everything you need to know and act as a pivotal resource. For more information on the CSCS study materials and practice exams, follow this link.

Before registering, be sure you are confident in the timeline you've created for yourself. Exams must be taken within 120 of registering, and you don't want to cut yourself short!

Taking the exam

While this may seem like common sense, we will go over the basics first. Before your exam, make sure to get a good night's sleep, hydrate, and eat a well-balanced meal.

Since you are given a dry erase board, be sure to write down any helpful information at the beginning of the exam, and remain confident in the knowledge you've acquired over the last few months of studying. Try not to second guess yourself, you've got this! And remember, never leave a question blank. Even if you are not sure of the answer, any response is better than no response. No matter how well you prepare, you are bound to become stumped over a question or two. Take your time and make your best-educated guess.

After you've completed your exam, you will immediately find out whether or not you have passed. And if you don't pass, no worries. You are able to re-take the exam as many times as you need to, all you have to do is wait 90 days between attempts. Even better, if you've only failed one of the sections, then you will only need to re-take that section. However, your passing score must be achieved within 1-year of the original exam, or both sections will need to be re-taken.

Overall, adding this certification to your personal library is a great resource to have in your career as a physical therapist. While you may not use everything you've learned with your CSCS certification, it will change the way you practice for the better. You will feel more confident in the way you assign loads and be able to better explain concepts to your patients that will help them build strength in a more efficient way. With an extra credential added to your name, you will be able to confidently use exercises as your main mode of treatment. 

Wondering which PT setting works best with your personal and professional goals? Take the quiz below to find out!

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